Knowing what Microsoft cares about, I worked out what had killed Courier a few months ago and I was fascinated to see it confirmed by Cnet's story about the secret history of the project.
Chatting about a (completely different, non-Microsoft) single-purpose business tablet device, one of the developers bemoaned the way users of their prototype loved the way it did the one thing it did so well - and then asked if they could read their email on it. The developers of that device resisted, and they don't have the internal equivalent of Windows to fight against. Talking over the direction of Windows 8 after the Build conference, I suggested that someone who wanted to see Courier do email had crippled the project. According to Cnet's Jay Greene, that someone was tablet PC fan Bill Gates.
I wasn't surprised Courier was killed; Microsoft has been gearing up for the last two years to bet the entire company - from phones, to tablets to PCs to Xbox consoles to servers to embedded systems to business tools to cloud - on a single platform for the first time in decades. Common core will put Windows 8 and the WinRT programming model it espouses on every device Microsoft is involved with across its business. It wasn't an understatement when Steve Ballmer said Windows 8 was the biggest bet for the company. In fact, I was surprised Courier got as far as it did before it was killed off. Robbie Bach and Jay Allard launched one non-Windows platform that Microsoft has to maintain and update already and Xbox took a long time to approach profitability. The failed Windows Mobile was under Bach's lead for a while. Windows CE has had successes - it's what Ford and Fiat build their in-car systems on - and it has a familiar programming model that's made Windows Phone easy to write apps for. But it's still a different code base to manage. I couldn't see Allard being allowed to create yet another non-Windows OS at Microsoft. I just didn't believe in Courier.
But reading through Greene's account of Courier, we spotted a familiar name; Giorgio Vanzini, general manager of Allard's Alchemie Ventures lab at Pioneer Square - a light and airy building in downtown Seattle that startups and Mac designers would be at home in. And that means that the tablet I didn't believe in was designed for me…
In spring 2009 we were at the Demo conference in Palm Springs and as usual, I was using my tablet PC to take notes on the show floor - it's hard to type on a notebook PC standing up and talking to people and not only can I write faster than I can take notes on a phone, no-one gets offended because they think I'm texting a friend (which happened just last week at Nokia World). I noticed someone watching me, and when they asked what I w as doing I went into my usual 'I can't do my job without a Tablet PC' spiel. Almost every time I write on screen with a pen, I get someone asking when this amazing new technology will be on sale; 2003, I say. I was a little surprised when this Giorgio Vanzini turned out to work for Microsoft, but then he asked if I'd come outside into the blinding sunshine and record a short video about how I used my tablet and what else I wanted it to do for their team's research. Sure, I said, assuming it was for the OneNote team or the Windows tablet team, and enthused for five minutes. I mentioned I was going to be in Seattle later that month and I'd be happy to talk for longer and Vanzini gave me a card that didn't look like the usual Microsoft corporate black and white - the printing was in gold, the typeface was different and it didn't mention what team he worked on - and we arranged for a conversation in Pioneer Square.
For once, I didn't take notes or ask questions; I told them in detail how I use OneNote, showing them six years of handwritten searchable notes with embedded audio recordings. I showed them sketches of knitting patterns and clothes I plan to make and jewellery I might one day get around to crafting. I showed them Web pages I've clipped and PowerPoints and PDFs I've annotated, and the set of ten custom tags I pepper my OneNote pages with - from 'good quote' to 'I have a photo that explains this' to 'write about this in the blog'. The conversation turned to the Moleskine notebooks Simon is fond of, and the engineers red-and-black notebooks I used to carry to meetings and index with sticky yellow notes in a vain attempt to be able to find notes I'd taken just a couple of weeks ago. We talked about the tactile feel of notebooks and pens, the decorative, personal aspect of picking a notebook with the right paper and a colourful colour - my notebooks are always spattered with stickers and skins (which get responses from 'that's pretty' to 'did you let your children do that?'). I remember worrying that the conversation was less about the handwriting recognition I value so much (you can search your handwriting; it's fantastic), and more about the feel of a tablet, the ways you collate information and other things that I thought wouldn't get me the tablet PC improvements I was asking for - like finally having decent spell checking in OneNote. (I'm still trying on that one.) But I also remember being really excited that there were people at Microsoft who cared as much about tablets and pen computing as I do; that the tablet PC was a cool and trendy idea, not a has-been/never-was overpriced business product. Imagine your most useful tool was looking out of date and orphaned and you couldn't afford to get out of date on technology…
When the Courier rumours came out, I was very dismissive. When Courier didn't come out, I wasn’t at all surprised. I still understand exactly why Microsoft didn't put Courier out; it would have multiplied platforms when the company is betting itself on unifying and reducing platforms. I probably would have disliked Courier; it had a lot of elements of the InkSeine research project it was often mistaken for and not enough of OneNote - and it doesn't sound like there was a commitment to coexist with OneNote (which remains Microsoft's too-well-kept secret - don't get me started on the fact that it's not in Office Starter). I don't want a tablet running Windows Phone - or an iPad - because I don't want a tablet without handwriting recognition. But what I do regret is that none of that passion for pens and tablets and writing and collating information on digital paper has shown up in Windows 8 and the Metro interface yet. Where are the heirs of Courier - and could they please create the Metro app that makes me feel someone is designing a product for me again?